When you think of the homeless what pictures or thoughts come to mind? Do you automatically jump to the stereotypical thoughts of laziness, dirty, drug users, or the uneducated scum of society who have no willpower to change their lives for the better? Do you get irritated at the thought of the man and his dog holding a sign by the freeway off ramp saying, “Vietnam Vet, hungry, will work for food”? Do you secretly curse him and think anyone could get a job at McDonald’s if they really wanted to. Or since it has nothing to do with you do you simply turn your cheek and ignore the issue completely? This type of narrow minded thinking is a major contributing factor to the homelessness problem. As individuals we cling to our labels forgetting that homelessness encompasses all aspects of culture and every walk of life. One bad choice, getting laid off or a tragic accident and that could be anyone of us. Down on luck and desperate for an inkling of hope.
My perception of the homeless changed after watching an HBO Documentary called “American Winter”. “American Winter” tells the story of eight families living around Portland, Oregon who called “211info”; a nonprofit in the area that refers those in need to help services in the region. You had a working single mother struggling to pay the bills because her 14 year old daughter had a sudden illness in which her insurance did not cover, and now the family is drowning in medical debt. You had a mother and son living on the streets because the father had a sudden heart attack and died; leaving them to survive on their own. Another single mother who has a college education, but the career she went to school for starts out at minimum wage. She has to donate plasma and pick up scrap metal just to make ends meet. There was an older man and his autistic son who has worked all his life but has been on unemployment for the last three years unable to find a job primarily due to his age. Here were situations that could easily be me one day, after further reflection I became extremely ashamed of my previous thoughts on the homeless and promptly changed my attitude towards them.
Homelessness is a problem that has been around since the creation of societies. It has touched every community throughout history whether it is 15th century England or downtown Olympia, Washington 2013. Homelessness isn’t just a “big city” problem it is an everywhere problem. The National Alliance to End Homelessness reported that in January of 2012 633,782 people were experiencing homelessness in America. A 2012 Thurston County Homeless Census Report showed a 36% increase in homelessness since 2006, from 441 homeless to 724, these are people in our own backyard. These numbers only reflect the men, women and children willing to participate in the census. They don’t include those who are couch surfing or staying with family so the numbers may be greater.
The problem with homelessness is it isn’t just one problem. Once you start trying to find the root of the issue you realize it is like an onion. When you start to peel it back there is a layer on top of another layer. People with developmental disorders and mental illnesses often become homeless due to lack of a family and friend support structure and lack of treatment for their problems. Availability of affordable housing and the current economic free fall of the American financial system has pushed formerly middle class families into poverty. Lack of useable job skills, increased cost of education and an employer friendly economy has forced many to the streets. Homelessness is an economic and perceptual problem. Once society realizes that those who wind up homeless have serious issues that need to be addressed systematically; not with a band aid of tossing a dollar in a guitar case, the problem may be solved. Unfortunately until then history will repeat itself and homelessness will continue.
There are many ideas involved with how to solve homelessness from hiring consultants with varying ways to approach the problem like Tampa Bay Florida and several other cities across the United States. They have hired Robert G. Marbut Jr., PhD. to solve their homeless problem, Dr. Marbut has some interesting proposals. He says open public bathrooms and food given away from church groups and charities are enabling, Dr. Marbut stated “There’s no accountability of the food, no services connected to the food at all, no one has got out of homelessness just because they got fed. That has never happened.” His idea is the homeless should be directed into shelters where case managers can engage the homeless in programs that will help them get back to productive members of society. Los Angeles County which sees more than 51,000 people lacking shelter nightly has partnered with United Way of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce to create a program, Home for Good. In its first year the program found permanent housing for 2,273 chronically homeless people. Home for Good uses a strategy called “housing first”, where people struggling with addiction and mental illness do not have to sober up before receiving help.
In 2005 Thurston County implemented the Ten-Year Homeless Housing Plan in which they expected the homeless population to decrease 50% by 2015. The plan involved creating 300 new permanent housing units and guiding more people into services before they became homeless. While the drafters of this plan had good intentions they could not have predicted the collapse of the economy in 2008 and now those programs that were supporting this plan are going through extreme budget cuts. In the Thurston County Homeless Census Report it shows a net loss of 100 beds in Thurston County since 2011. Tent cities have emerged as temporary living facilities in our area but also come with difficulties from theft, uncleanliness and even murder.
While each state, county or city does what it can, we need to look at homelessness nationally to solve this problem. Fighting homelessness at the national level will be an uphill battle. There are those who would rather sweep the homeless under the rug. According to James A. Forte, “Those who are indifferent to or oppose the development of humane and inclusive symbols of homelessness and of community programs for the homeless often have more money, power and tricks than practitioners. They also seem content with a sociopolitical reality that masks and ignores human suffering”. Homelessness is one effect of a flawed government system. A system where wealth is distributed to the wealthy, a system where healthcare is in bed with big business, a system where our politicians answer to corporations, a system where those corporations have the same rights as you and me. We need to live as functioning communities instead of being systematically divided.
U.S. Representative for Illinois Jan Schakowsky said, “There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.” Compassion is the first step in solving the homelessness issue. There are a great many services and people willing to help those in need. The proof is on Google, type in homeless services in Olympia Washington and ten different shelter options and programs pop right up. From Catholic Community Services, nonprofits like Side Walk and governmentally funded services. Yet even with all these services homelessness is still a problem. That is where compassion from the average person comes in. Once we as a society start to see the homeless as equals and realize no person, especially in the United States of America, deserves to be without basic human necessities. Once our eyes are opened to these cruel injustices, we as a nation can stand up to the policy makers and demand change.
Solving homelessness is no one size fits all solution. Honestly, homelessness may never be solved. It is part of a bigger problem, the human problem. There will always be those who are greedy, who are entitled, who are selfish and who have the attitude that they are better. We can only be accountable for our own actions. Be actively part of finding the solution. Volunteer at the food bank or soup kitchen. Get involved with a local shelter or advocacy group. You may only be an individual but many individuals form a community. As philosopher and humanitarian Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”